Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts

08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed


What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.

I NEVER SAID GOODBYE

Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.

MAYBE I DID THIS TIME

I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.

AND THEN MY HEARTACHES BLED INTO MY STORIES

Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.


My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


by Melodie Campbell

One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?

Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

18 November 2015

Bouchercon: Vision Revision


by Robert Lopresti

First things first: in my last piece in this space I complained about something I thought Sisters In Crime did at Bouchercon.  It turns out it was actually done by SmashWords.  I don't know where I got my misinformation and I apologize to Sisters In Crime and to anyone who read my piece before I corrected it.  Now onto today's fresh blunders…

As I mentioned last month, I am pleased as punch to have a story in Murder Under The Oaks, an anthology published in October to celebrate Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina.  I am also delighted that the profits go to Wake County, NC libraries.  How can I argue with a cause like that?

This photo shows me at the end of the assembly line, eighteen or so authors signing their stories.  I'm the last guy because my story ends the book.

When I heard about the proposed anthology I went through my old files, searching for an appropriate piece.  I was happy to give a story to charity, but only one that had already been rejected by the major markets.  This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the tale; most of my stories that have  been nominated for awards were rejected at least once along the way.

I settled on "On The Ramblas,"  which is set in Barcelona.  (Well, I don't have any set in Raleigh... yet.)  I pulled up the file for an edit and decided the plot was fine and the writing was okay, but immediately the question of theme came up.

Eileen Gunn said that "'Theme' is what the critics use to describe what you did."  Someone else said theme is what the story is about other than the plot and the characters.  I prefer the latter definition.

Usually I don't know what the theme of a story is until I am in the final edits.  That's when a sentence in the text will pop up in front of me and I'll think: Oh, THAT'S what it's about.  But in the case of "On The Ramblas" I knew early on that the theme was: What does it take to make you happy?

Happy American tourists on the Ramblas,
with animals.
My story is about two American tourists in Spain. Frank is miserable because he would rather be back home making business deals. His wife, Helen, is unhappy because Frank is making sure she is. My third character, Josep, is a Catalonian pickpocket, and he is brokenhearted because his girlfriend left him, taking his team of thieves with her. He is not only lonely (say that three times fast) but he is trying to do his job without the proper co-workers. What will happen when these freight trains of unhappiness collide on the Ramblas, Barcelona's main tourist shopping street?

So I thought I was all set in the theme department. But as soon as I sat down to revise I realized that there was a second theme, begging to come out and play.  It was right there in the first sentence:  Tourists wandered through the Ramblas like sheep, waiting to be fleeced.  I loved the animal/people metaphor.  I realized I could punch up that connection.

(A little inside baseball here: technically  my metaphor is a motif which I am using to build a theme.  I say that strictly to show off to the English majors.  Back to business.)

Of course , there is a connection  between  happiness and the people/animal thingie.  Back in Philosophy 101  my professor quoted John Stuart Mill to explain the importance of her topic: It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

There was one more thing I needed to do before sending in the story. It was recommended that the submissions include a reference to oak trees.  (Remember the title of the book?)  So I searched the web to see if there was 

The other end of the line,
with editor Art obscuring Margaret Maron.
any interesting connection between oaks and Spain.  There was!  And here's the beauty part: the connection has to do with animals. This is the sort of thing that happens when a writer is "in the zone." Things fall into place with spooky precision. It is the sort of thing that makes one invoke the muse or other magical explanations. I only wish it happened more often.

So I sent the story in, editor Art Taylor accepted it, and as a reward for his good taste and erudition he was invited to join the ranks of the SleuthSayers.

That last part is a joke: his name was brought up by someone who knew nothing about the anthology.  But I am glad to be in the book and I hope, well, that it makes you happy.